Under the strain of more than a decade of war, the Army is increasing its focus on the health of soldiers, their families and veterans. It is training commanders at all levels in skills that range from suicide prevention to helping injured troops navigate the bureaucratic maze to veterans’ benefits.
Army leaders call it an effort to increase Army resiliency.
“We’ve asked a lot from our soldiers and their families in the past 11 years and we will continue asking more from the in future,” said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel. But it is clear that repeated deployments to war have taken their toll.
The Army is wrestling with problems that range from more suicides, sexual assaults and post traumatic stress in the ranks to joblessness and homelessness among veterans, said a panel of Army leaders who spoke Wednesday, Oct. 24 at the Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition.
Response to these new problems includes placing greater emphasis on “behavioral health,” turning to high-tech help such as electronic medical records and telemedicine, and launching warrior transition programs that provide greater coordination with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But Army leaders are also calling for cultural change to make soldiers and commanders understand that “it’s okay to ask for help,” and that the Army has an obligation to provide it, said Sgt. Maj. Of the Army Raymond Chandler.
The cultural shift should include acceptance by commanders, from squad leaders and higher, that injured and wounded soldiers remain “valued members of the team” whom the Army is committed to care for, Chandler said.
For badly wounded soldiers, warrior transition programs have been established to help make a smooth transition out of the Army and into programs run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Army is also focusing more on “behavioral health,” said Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army’s surgeon general. Behavioral health is the Army’s preferred term for mental health.
To head off behavioral health problems caused by the stress of combat, the Army has begun practicing “tele-behavioral health” to evaluate soldiers while they are still in the field in Afghanistan, Horoho said. It has also doubled the number of behavioral health providers, such as psychologists, psychiatrists and others, she said, and it has set up a behavioral health data portal – a single online place where patients can enter personal information once and avoid repeated paperwork.
Horoho said Army scientists are evaluating new blood and vision tests that show promise for diagnosing brain injuries. The Army is also acquiring new handheld devices that measures brain electrical activity to help determine whether soldiers have suffered concussions.
And to a greater extent than it has in the past, the Army stressing prevention rather than simply treating health problems after they arise, Horoho said. “Seventy percent of the medical problems in the military can be tied to sleep, activity and nutrition” – or the lack of them, she said.
Difficulty sleeping is a problem for many soldiers returning from combat deployments, she said. It contributes to weight gain and decreases cognitive capability and other health problems, so commanders are being trained to be alert to such problems.
Army medical providers are experimenting with new approaches to pain management that include yoga, acupressure, acupuncture and chiropractic care, she said.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a significant increase in the number of women in the military and in combat. Consequently there has been an increase in medical and other problems among women, from suicides to homelessness among women veterans. That has prompted the Department of Veterans Affairs to hire more doctors who specialize in women’s medicine, including gynecologists, and to open women-only clinics, said Danny Pummill director of VA/DOD liaison for Veterans Affairs.
In a troubling development, sexual harassment and sexual assaults have increased dramatically since 2006, and the Army “is deeply committed” to reversing that trend, Bromberg said. The service is starting by educating soldiers, Army contractors and other employees on appropriate behavior – “what is right and what is wrong,” Bromberg said.
But the Army has also increased to about 15,000 the number of victims’ advocates and response coordinators whose job is to help sexual assault victims. The Army has given commanders additional resources for taking legal action against attackers, Bromberg said.
The emphasis on taking better care of war-stressed soldiers is important to the Army’s future, he said. “What we do now will shape the force for 10, 15, 20 years” into the future.